Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter Victory: Are We Living It?
     Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Alleluia. So what? Does Christ’s victory over the power of sin and death on our behalf change anything? How does it challenge us to live this victory each day?
     After his resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples and offers them his peace. When he appeared to the women at the tomb Jesus told them not to be afraid. In other words, through his death and resurrection Jesus brought about the possibility of peace and freedom from fear. Because of Christ’s victory there is no good reason to be afraid of or anxious about anything. We can rest in the peace of Christ which is deeper than any suffering or challenge we may face.
     To put it another way, Jesus has removed any barriers that may have prevented us from living fully and deeply the life of a disciple. We can no longer use any excuse for not being aflame with the faith and ready to share that faith with others. So, are we living deeply this new life which Christ won for us?
      We must seriously consider the great gift of redemption that God has given us and, as stewards of this gift, share it with others and not keep it locked up inside our hearts and minds. Others have the right to hear the gospel proclaimed to them. If we have been given the gift of the gospel, then we are obliged to proclaim it to others.
      Our churches are filled on Easter and Christmas, but in between those feasts . . . ? Are we really a people that believe in the victory of Easter and are looking for ways to live it and proclaim it? Do we dismiss our fears and anxieties and accept the deep-down gift of peace that Jesus offers us so that we can step out in faith and share the gospel with others?
      How will you take the victory of Easter and live it more fully, today, tomorrow, for the fifty days of Easter, for the rest of your life? How will your life shout “Alleluia” so that others may also come to know the gospel of Jesus and share in his victory over sin and death?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


A Walk Through Holy Week

      Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, a celebration that is both joyful and foreboding. The day commemorates the Lord's entrance into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover with his disciples. We begin the Mass with the blessing of palms and a joyful procession into the church. Our joy is quickly tempered, however, with the reading of the Lord's Passion which reminds us of what is to come during the week.

      On Tuesday, the Chrism Mass will be celebrated at Sacred Heart Cathedral. This is the celebration at which the bishop blesses the oils which are used throughout the year: the oil of catechumens, the sacred chrism, and the oil for the sick.

      The three great feasts of Holy Week—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter—­comprise the Paschal Triduum. The word Paschal means "passover." Triduum, a Latin word, means "three days." The Last Supper along with Jesus' death and resurrection comprise the new passover event whereby we are saved and given new life. The three feasts are best viewed as one great, three-day event.

      The first great feast of the Tri­duum is the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday. Lent ends with this celebration. On this night we celebrate the institution of the Sacrament of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, our new Passover feast. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, is the "lamb" whose blood saves us from death just as the Old Testament lamb's blood saved the Hebrews from death under the Egyptians. On this night we also celebrate our call to ministry. At the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of the apostles and challenged them to do the same with one another. There will be no formal dismissal at the end of Mass this evening. Rather, after a procession, the Eucharist will be reserved in a repository and all will be invited to remain in prayer before the Eucharist, remembering Jesus’ time in the garden of Gethsemane.

      Good Friday is the most solemn feast of the Church year. It is the only day of the year when Mass is not celebrated. The celebration of the Lord's death begins in silence with the presider prostrating himself before the altar. The focus of the day's readings, which includes the reading of the Passion, is the suffering and death of the Lord, a death that was part of God’s plan for our salvation. During the celebration we are invited to come forward and reverence the cross which is a sign of our redemption and of God's love.

      The Easter Vigil begins the celebration of the greatest feast of the Church year. After forty days of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and refraining from saying "alleluia," we are invited to rejoice in the Lord's resurrection which destroyed the power of sin and death and opened the gates of paradise. We begin the celebration in darkness with the blessing of the Easter fire and the lighting of the Easter candle which represents the light of Christ. From the Easter candle we light our own candles and process into the church where the ancient hymn of exultation (the "Exsultet") is sung. We continue with readings that trace the history of salvation up to the resurrection. We then joyfully baptize, confirm and welcome into the Church new members and renew our baptismal promises. We continue with the celebration of the Eucharist and are dismissed with resounding "alleluias." The Mas­s during the day continues this joyous celebration.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Pastoral Planning by the Numbers? It Doesn’t Add Up

. . . [T]he social science construction of reality has confused information with expertise, know-how with wisdom, change with almost anything new, and complexity with profundity. (Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, p. 96)

            Statistics. Facts. Data. Information. Lies, damn lies and statistics?[1] We live in the information era, the era of instant gratification of our inquisitive minds. But does information necessarily translate into knowledge. Does data provide a blueprint for change? Can statistics mislead rather than inform? In particular, in what ways might pastoral planning efforts throughout the country be attempting to reinvent what should be second nature to the church?
            One of the first things that dioceses and parishes do as they begin a process of pastoral planning is to gather the numbers, the available data, information on trends and whatever other statistical tidbits might affect the process. But what information should be used? A crucial question which is seldom asked at the start of the planning process is, What’s the vision and underlying spirituality for this particular planning process? Not to define this underlying approach is to start off on the wrong foot.

What’s Your Vision and Spirituality of Change?
            One set of facts which is seldom, if ever, placed on the table during discussions about change concerns our prejudices. What are the biases which we bring to the table? 
            Much has been said about the numbers of Catholics who have abandoned cities in the northeast for suburban life. City parishes know firsthand how the numbers of Catholics who used to reside in the city have left for the suburbs. City churches, once regularly filled to capacity five or six times on a Sunday, are now half empty. Even in the suburbs Catholic participation in parishes has declined. Budgets have been cut. Resources for ministries have diminished. The number of priests is declining. There are plenty of statistics and data which can be brought forward to show how the Catholic culture which boomed in the 50s and 60s has undergone a steep decline especially in the rust belt cities of the northeast.
            Sadly, when it comes to pastoral planning, most, if not all, statistical input is on the negative side of the equation. But do these data tell a complete story? Not at all. What seems to be happening is that data is being marshaled to support a spirituality of diminishment or scarcity. Why? Fear? Anxiety? Despair? Ignorance?
            Data can be used to prove just about anything. Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics (see Wikipedia for a good definition of this). The selective use of information can bolster any viewpoint. Sadly, the selective use of data in the Diocese of Rochester has cast a pall on pastoral planning, bringing about anxiety, fear and despair. It doesn’t have to be. If anything, the church is and must be a beacon of hope. Why? Because the church is the bearer of the Good News and the Good News is not about diminishment but abundance. The God of the universe is a God whose grace is bottomless, whose presence is powerful, and whose desire is that people thrive.
            One priest described the pastoral planning in this diocese like crouching in a foxhole with bullets whizzing overhead. That’s a powerful image, one that, I suspect, would be shared by many involved in the pastoral planning process.
            Edwin Friedman suggests that leadership, or lack thereof, underlying this kind of change focuses on the negative (death?) and demoralizes people. He states:

“It is not advancing technology that is creating the information bind, however; it is societal regression, first by perverting the natural instincts of curiosity and adventure into a dogged quest for certainty, and secondly focusing on pathology rather than on strength.” (97)

            Such pastoral planning starts with what’s wrong and not possible and never gets to what’s right and possible. The prevailing questions go like this: Now that you have less and will, in the foreseeable future, have less, how will you cut back, consolidate, and hunker down? Shouldn’t the question be: How do you want to grow, how do you need to grow and how will you go about it? Instead of focusing on weaknesses, the process should focus on strengths. Instead of the quick fix, we should be looking at what is right and build on it. Leadership, in the present day and age, is always a step behind the data when it should be out front leading with a vision rooted in the Gospel. Just as Jesus defined his mission as proclaiming freedom to the captives and God’s justice for all, so it must be our mission and vision.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. “(Luke 4: 18-19)

He did not say: Look, we’ve got a lot of poor people here so we need to be careful what we do with our limited resources. Jesus’ vision was formed out of the very statistics which today cause pastoral planners to say: It can’t be done.

A Great and Important Statistic
            Let me give one statistic which is never brought forward in the planning process. It concerns the number of unchurched people in our diocese. When I was pastor of Light of Christ I researched the number of unchurched people who resided in the 14621 and 14609 zip codes, the zip codes which include St. Andrew and Annunciation.  I used the Link2Lead program which the diocese had subscribed to for each parish at the beginning of the pastoral planning process. In those two zip codes were over 20,000 people who were not connected with any faith community. 20,000!! Recently I did some more research and found that in a three-mile radius around St. Pius Tenth Church nearly four in ten people had no faith community. If the church is about proclaiming the Gospel to everyone—and that is the great commission given to us by Christ—then why are we focused on diminishment when we have an abundance of brothers and sisters who have a right to hear the Gospel proclaimed to them and which means that we are obliged to proclaim the Gospel to them. Closing churches and deconstructing ministries doesn’t answer this need; it denies this need.
            What might the local church look like today if ten years ago every pastoral planning group had been commissioned to proclaim the Gospel to everyone in their region? What if every parish had been given a growth target of, let’s say, two to five percent each year? Sadly, it didn’t happen.
            Have we learned anything from the failure of pastoral planning over the years? Are we honest enough to say that it hasn’t worked and, what’s more, that we’ve neglected to grab hold of the very reason the church exists and fulfill that mission? Let’s hope that we will learn from the failures of the past and begin anew to do what God desires of us.

[1] Attributed to,  among others,  the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Here's a link to a paper I wrote while I was participating in the Lilly-funded Pastor-Theologian Program through the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey:

Monday, April 4, 2011

Many writers have noted the decline in the one-on-one celebration of the Sacrament of Penance (also known as Confession or Reconciliation). Some attribute the decline to society’s changing awareness and understanding (or lack thereof) of sin. Some attribute the decline to the frequent use of communal penance services where participants don’t have to confess particular sins to a confessor. Whatever the reasons for the decline, it is a very unfortunate turn of events.
The sacrament of Penance is a powerful encounter with God and an opportunity to confront our sins and be healed. While the other sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, also forgive sins, the sacrament of Reconciliation uniquely helps us to focus on the areas in our lives where we turn away from God and our neighbor and hurt those relationships.
It is important to name our sins, something which doesn’t happen in communal penance services to the same extent. There is power in our words, power in our claiming and naming our sins before a priest who represents both God and the church. Remember that God spoke a word and it came to be in the story of creation. There is power in personally owning our wrong-doing and honestly seeking reconciliation with God and others.
Many say: Why do I have to confess my sins to a priest? Why can’t I just confess them directly to God? The Sacrament of Penance is about confessing our sins directly to God. However, because we are a church, a community, we must also recognize the communal aspect of our sinfulness. We do not sin privately. Any sin, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, does harm everyone else in the world. Individual confession gives us the opportunity to celebrate forgiveness in a communal setting. Again, the priest is not just an individual but the representative of God and the entire church when the sacrament of Penance is celebrated.
Many people say they are scared of confessing their sins. What will Father X think of me? I’ll be embarrassed! Fear and embarrassment are merely feelings which need not get in the way of  confessing our sins (although the devil sure likes to use them to keep us away from the sacrament). We are invited to let go of our worries and fears and accept what God has to offer: forgiveness and healing.
As a priest I am deeply privileged to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance with people. I see how people who commit themselves to their spiritual growth integrate this sacrament into their journey. I regularly celebrate this sacrament myself because I am aware of how much it helps me to claim my sins and continue on my pilgrim journey as a disciple of the Lord. Sure, I think: What will my spiritual director think of me when I tell him I’ve sinned in this or that way? But those momentary worries are always swallowed up in the wonderful healing which I receive in the sacrament. 
Here's the link: